Some Thoughts On Sleeping Bags

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One thing I seem to get asked about a lot is sleeping bags. I suppose that’s inevitable, I’m a well known kit-junkie and apart from a tent and a pack they’re the most expensive items most people carry.

The trouble is, for that same reason, I’ve not got that many! Well okay technically I have four. But for ten years of buying proper bags it’s quite restrained (I’m discounting ones bought for LB and of course all the earlier ones as not worth thinking about!)

So, more than any other posting this is “in my opinion” and it’s one that I’m hoping won’t cause a ruckus…

So, if I was buying a bag, what would I buy?

PHD, Peter Hutchinson Designs. As far as I’m concerned they make the best bags. Others are very, very comparable. Rab look excellent. I hear very good things indeed about Western Mountaineering and Montbell. There are others that you may think even better (that’s what the comments section is for!). But from what I’ve actually seen and used it’s PHD for me.

The Hispar range for winter (LB has one of the 800 fill power ones they used to make before getting the amazing 900FP down) and the minimus for summer.

We both have minimus bags. They worked fine with it just above freezing on a weekend in snowy Snowdonia as long was we wore duvet jackets and extra clothes (I have a PHD minimus – top class jacket). The bags certainly wouldn’t have been enough on their own. The alternative was to take LB’s Hispar and my ME Iceline. They are both wonderfully warm (rated to -30C) but they’re also bulky and quite heavy so we were very glad that particular experiment worked out.

If money is an issue – try the Alpkit Pipedreams. But for me, not the Skyehigh range – less lofty down makes them heavy. In fact beware of any down below 750 fill power – it’s false economy in my opinion (more on that below).

Okay so here’s the potentially controversial bit: I reckon with Alpkit you get a good 90% of what you’ll see from PHD. I feel rather sad to see PHD so undercut but maybe I’m being silly about that and I should just accept that it’s the commercial reality of the situation. I’d better make clear that I do like Alpkit and have a lot of respect for the guys that run it. And I know of at least five bags bought from them as a result of my recommendation! And for balance; I know of at least that many from PHD too.

So, Alpkit, very good but I’d always go for the PHD option for the main summer and winter bags.

Bear in mind that a down bag has an expected life of around 25 years+ so any expense now can be amortised across that time. Conversely any expense spared now you’ll pay for in terms of weight carried for many, many, many days. In ten years will you really look back and think “I’m glad I saved that £100”?

Of course, with technology improving all the time, who’s to say we won’t all be using helium filled synthetic bags weighing a few tens of grams in ten years? For now, I’m assuming not.

There are tons of others out there – you can spend days making a sleeping bag choice! These are just the ones that I’d consider personally.

10 Replies to “Some Thoughts On Sleeping Bags”

  1. Being in Japan, I’ve always used Montbell. The Ultra Light and Super Stretch series are fantastic in the sub-zero end of the series. They are a pleasure to sleep in.

    I’ve always been a fan of natural down, but after a couple of damp-bag incidents last winter I’m thinking of switching to synthetic and accepting the extra weight. I’d be interested to hear any thoughts on the down/synthetic debate..

  2. Those Montbell stretch bags do look very good… must… resist…

    As for damp bags; I’m wrestling with that somewhat for Iceland. In theory it’s no problem. But knowing that it can rain more than Scotland and there are river crossings has made me consider it carefully.

    Overall I think it just means we have to make sure our water-proofing is utterly bomb-proof. Which is easy – if you accept the weight.

    I’ve read Chris T saying that during a six week trip down the length of Norway/Sweden where it rained and was foggy every single day, he had a down bag that he managed to keep dry without a problem.

    He also says that on extended ski trips he’s avoided a vapour barrier liner by managing to dry the bag, inside out and hung over skis, every few days when the it was sunny.

    Do you know how your bag got damp last year? Were you using a vapour barrier liner?

  3. The first time was definitely a case where a VBL would have helped – it was still early winter, and the bag was perhaps a bit too warm inside the biv.

    The second time was the result of an emergency abandonment of a snow hole that I’d dug – in the middle of the night the ceiling started to collapse, and I had to haul my biv sack out rather quickly and got a lot of snow into it. Not one of my finer moments! Thankfully it was a one-night trip, but it really got me to thinking about what would have happened if I’d been further afield…

  4. I read both your and Kevin’s accounts of the snow-hole fun. Sounded like quite a night. Snow hole collapse isn’t something you see mentioned much – maybe those that experience it don’t generally get to tell the tale…

    I’m only half joking there! I don’t know if many people are killed in such incidents I must admit.

    But leaving that aside as bad-luck (that you may be able to avoid – if only by grabbing the bag out a little more carefully if yo can!) then the VBL does sound like the way to go for the conditions you tend to camp in. I know that Judy Armstrong swears by them now and she’s got quite some snow-camping experience now.

  5. Yes the ordering could be a little sketchy from what I’ve heard – always found it fine so far though.

    They also seem to be very slow to reply to some email. Though often having Peter himself reply always made you feel that at least they took the mail seriously.

    I’ve always found it quickest and easiest just to call them!

  6. Chris – I’ve decided on the following course of action regarding synthetic vs. down. For 3-season backpacking use, I have a Western Mountaineering Ultralite 20 degree down bag. It is divine. For higher risk winter camping, I have a 0 degree synthetic bag from the North Face because the consequences of a wet bag are so bad. I augment this with a downmat 7 sleeping pad which gives me about 20 degrees more range. I suppose if I did mountaineering like you I’d probably go synthetic.

  7. Well…. I still go with down. :)

    Even though the upcoming Iceland trip is giving me pause for thought in terms of bomb-proof waterproofing (that sentence construction looks redundant – doesn’t it?)

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